31 May 2011


I am once again digging up bamboo by the roots.  After spending yesterday cutting it all down to the ground, I started the it-shouldn't-be-this-hard-but-it-really-is process of getting the roots up today.

The nice thing about having it gone is that now we'll have a lot of culms to keep on hand once I finish taking the leaves off.  The tomatoes will be well-staked this year, and any time we need a length of something skinny and strong and long (for cleaning out vertical drain pipes, maybe) we'll be all set.

But those roots...

While digging I couldn't help but consider what an apt metaphor this bamboo business is for the hard work of getting my act together.  What started off as a whim or a lark or an unconsidered decision quickly became thoroughly established with a life of its own and a complete disregard for anything else in its path.  What seemed contained and manageable spread into unforeseen territory.  And when I now try to get rid of it, I not only have a mighty big task on my hands but I have to keep after it to make sure it doesn't try to reassert itself again.

And the most sobering aspect of all is that none of it needed to be.   

How much extra work have I made for myself with my many small (and large) lapses of judgment?  How much time must I now spend undoing what never had to be done in the first place?

I vow to uproot the endless blind passions, but I probably could have made my task a little easier with just a bit more forethought.  "Seemed like a good idea at the time" is small consolation now.

30 May 2011

Can't Quite Call It a Holiday...

I never thought much about Memorial Day as a kid.  In the family I have to go back as far as great-uncles to find relatives who even served in war, and they all came back.  As for many, I suppose, it was the 1st everybody-hanging-out-in-the-back-yard-and-swimming-in-the-neighbor's-pool day of the summer.  As a heady, 70's kind of teenager, I had a kind of contempt for anything related to the military and national identity.

I think about it more now.  I think of the Tomb of the Unknowns.  I think of the graves on the beachheads of Normandy.  I think about bodies never recovered.  I often wonder how palliative it is for families to consider that the fallen "died for their country." 

I think of those killed in "friendly fire."  I think of those used as test subjects for biological, nuclear, and chemical weaponry.  I think of the guy honored in one of the suburbs here who thew himself on a grenade in Vietnam, saving the rest of his company.  He was 22.

Buddhist clergy are the go-to people for funerals in East Asia.  I think I'll do a small memorial service today.  It's the very least I can offer.

27 May 2011

From the No Comprendo Lexicon: "Training"

With every breath and every motion new dharma gates open wide.  I have vowed to penetrate them all.

It's no small task.  Everything that happens – everything from first waking up in the morning to how I leave the bathroom to what I have for breakfast to what job I tackle first to how well I do that job and how thoroughly and how attentively it is accomplished to how I relate to those I work with to the thoughts that fill my head while doing any of the above to how I comport my body and give it appropriate exercise and rest to how I am with the kids, the ex, my colleagues, my neighbors and on and on and on – everything is a wide open field for practice. 

A Zen student has more than ample opportunity to work out what needs working out, because everyone has more than ample opportunity to work out what needs working out.  It's the nature of our life.  A Zen student may be more willing than others to enter into the field of life, but a Zen student doesn't need something the field of life isn't already bringing forth by itself in abundance.

So after a bunch of years at this I'm still rather in the dark when I hear references to "training." I don't mean "training" as in "training to play the han" or "training to be timer," "doing marathon training" or "training to work the donut fryer." I get that.  I mean "training" as in "We have you down for 8 days of training," or "Training is $15.00 a day, so that'll be $120.00 total," or "You're a Zen student in training," and "Maybe the teacher is doing this as a way of training us" or "The teacher is always training us with his/her actions."

It's the amorphous, blank check, indecipherable nature of this "training" that confuses me.  If I don't know what it is, if I don't know who is doing it to me, and if I can't tell whether it's going on or what the stakes are, is it training?  Really?

So the other day I was painting with a fellow resident, and he had pushed too hard with too much paint on the roller, leaving thick lines of paint from the end of the roller on the walls of the room he had just finished.  Seeing this as I was doing the trim with a brush, I called him back to the room, had him roll out the lines (not to punish him; there was only one roller in use, and he had it in hand), and then we checked the walls together to make sure we got them all.  Correcting his mistake, he offered that maybe he had had too much paint on the roller or had pushed too hard.  Done.

If "training" is solving a problem together, I'm all on board. I have every confidence that my painting buddy will be a better painter in the future and perhaps a bit more attentive in other areas of his life as well.

But if "training" is just a mind game added on to the already wonderful complexity of our life – as if the wonderful complexity of our life wasn't already good enough – then I'm left utterly clueless.

I'm sure it's just me, because others seem to think this kind of "training" is just fine.

I'm still confused.  I just don't know.

26 May 2011

Inappropriate for Minors

The other day I heard a teisho that prompted me to recollect a tale I heard long, long ago, when I was young and quite impressionable:
One day in winter, as Francis was going with Brother Leo from Perugia to St. Mary of the Angels, and was suffering greatly from the cold, he called to Brother Leo, who was walking on before him, and said to him, "Brother Leo, if it were to please God that the friars should give in all lands a great example of holiness and edification, write down, and note carefully, that this would not be perfect joy."

A little further on, Francis called to him a second time, "Brother Leo, if the friars were to make the lame walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy."
Shortly after, he cried out again, "Brother Leo, if the friars knew all languages, if they were versed in all science, if they could explain all Scripture, if they had the gift of prophecy, and could reveal, not only all future things, but likewise the secrets of all consciences and all souls, write that this would not be perfect joy."

After proceeding a few steps farther, he cried out again with a loud voice, "O Brother Leo, little lamb of God, if the friars could speak with the tongues of angels, if they could explain the course of the stars, if they knew the virtues of all plants; if all the treasures of the earth were revealed to them; if they were acquainted with the various qualities of all birds, of all fish, of all animals, of men, of trees, of stones, of roots and of waters – write that this would not be perfect joy."
Shortly after, he cried out again, "O Brother Leo, if the friars had the gift of preaching so as to convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that this would not be perfect joy."

Now when this manner of discourse had lasted for the space of two miles, Brother Leo wondered much within himself; and, questioning the saint, he said, "Father, I pray you teach me wherein is perfect joy." 
Francis answered, "If, when we shall arrive at St. Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, "We are two of the brothers," he should answer angrily, "What you say is not the truth; you are but two impostors going about to deceive the world and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say;" if then he refuses to open to us, and leaves us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger til nightfall – then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who is making him to speak thus against us, write down, Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy.

And if we knock again, and the porter comes out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, "Begone, miserable robbers! To the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!" – and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, Brother Leo, write that this is indeed perfect joy.

And if, urged by cold and hunger, we knock again, calling to the porter and entreating him with many tears to open to us and give us shelter, for the love of God, and if he comes out more angry than before, exclaiming, "These are but importunate rascals, I will deal with them as they deserve;" and taking a knotted stick, he seizes us by the hood, throws us on the ground, rolls us in the snow, and beats and wounds us with the knots in the stick – if we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, write, Brother Leo, that here finally is perfect joy."
Mama, don't let your babies grow up hearing such nonsense.  Who knows what what kinds of lives they might aspire to.  They might actually – you'd better sit down, mama – take this stuff seriously.

24 May 2011

Why I Like Ryōkan So Goshdarn Much

He had pet peeves and wasn't bashful about listing them.
He received inka and did nothing with it.
He begged food.
He played with the kids.
(Sometimes he played with the kids and forgot to beg food!)
He was talented but didn't make much ado about it.
He was guileless.
He could hang with the locals.
He could hang by himself.
He gave the thieves everything he could (too bad about the moon...) 

But most of all, he rode that finest of lines where the distinction between insight and foolish simplicity shows itself to be no distinction at all.   And for that example I am most grateful, even if I scarcely live up to it.

22 May 2011

Still Crazy After All These Years

I used to think to myself, "How can someone believe that in the 20th (now 21st) century?"  I have since come to understand that anyone can believe anything in any century, because the truth that these beliefs try to get away from, dukkha, is and remains the first truth of the human condition.

My heart goes out to all those who had no plan to be here today.  I, too, have suffered disappointment when my strategies for escaping dukkha didn't quite work out as expected.  I, too, had invested so much.  I, too, was baffled at my spectacular failure.

And you know what?  I didn't learn.  I still invent ways of escaping dukkha in the hopes of sidestepping the hard death of the self which alone brings true liberation.  

So when people ask what it will take to get folks to stop predicting the end of the world, I ask myself what it will take to get me to stop playing my own games and get down to what needs to be done.

May all beings, every last one of us and then some, be very much at ease!

21 May 2011

The Emperor's New Clothes

I'm in the middle of a task that, I fear, is but a fool's errand.

I suspect – no, I know – that others think so, too.  They're keeping mum about it, though, not amongst themselves necessarily but toward the one who is setting the task. 

They believe – and perhaps they are right – that such studied silence is a mark of equanimity, forbearance, dutifulness and deference, the fruit of good Zen training, an indicator of insight and wisdom, a sign of respect.

I don't know.

"Shut up, kid," I hear the crowd say, "the emperor's new clothes are exactly what he ordered."

19 May 2011

Leave No Dharma Orphans

I first came to formal practice when my twins were going on 4 and my youngest was just a few months old.  Their world has always contained things like sesshin, Vesak, zazen and bodhisattvas.

When I set out to ordain, I thought it was important to get their OK.  I included them in the name picking process.  When it came about that I would be moving into the center, we talked about what that would mean for them.

It has all worked out pretty well.  They had their friends over for a slumber party not long after I moved in.  Everyone got to hit the bell, strike the han, etc.  One of their friends wondered why every bathroom was named "rakusu."  When there are sittings, they know how and where to keep quiet.  No one in the sangha would ever know they were in the building during formal rounds.  They're good kids.

I sometimes think of what it would be like to ordain as a bhikkhu.  I've kicked around the idea of getting in touch with a Sinhalese bhikkhu in the area to discuss what prospects there might be for ordaining as a Theravādan but still practicing with a Zen sangha, jumpstarting something of a monastic practice in the lineage.

And then I think of the kids.  I think of meeting the prospective in-laws wearing the reddish robes of the Sinhalese sangha.  I think of not eating at a wedding reception because it would be after midday.  I think of potential grandkids and how that would or wouldn't play out.

But then I think of Pema Chödrön, and how she had two kids when she ordained.  I wonder how that went.  I'm sure it wasn't easy.  Her ex was a lawyer, so I'm sure money wasn't that much of a problem.  I hear her kids are good with it now, but I wonder if it doesn't hurt that she's pretty well-known, draws crowds of thousands, and has an impressive publication list. Would it make a difference if she were stitching robes in a back room of a monastery somewhere?

I have time before anything like this would become even a remotely live option, since I'm responsible for a good chunk of the kids' college tuition.  I guess I've always held to the idea that children should not be sacrificed on the altar of the parent's religion.  So for now, I think we're all in a good enough spot with things just as they are.

18 May 2011

朴 or pu often gets translated in Daoist texts as "uncarved block."  It refers to a primal state of simplicity, but not dullness, prior to the arising of distinctions and thinking.  Daoists, and the Buddhists who encountered them, used it as a metaphor for Mind.  It captures in short form, for example, what "Affirming Faith in Mind" hammers home in long form.

But there's a danger in just thinking, "Oh, ok, 朴, I get it," thereby adding another idea to one's collection.  This is why koan training is such an important part of practice.   朴 is what Ummon kept throwing at the pious and fawning when he put Zen practice and the profundity of Buddhism on the level of taking a dump and wiping your ass.  How many of the koans are meant to keep our feet firmly on the ground?  It's the shit stick, dummy.  It's the hempen shirt, for goodness' sake.  It's the price of rice or gas or cars, goofball.  It's the water in the pot, the storehouse, the interstate, the gate, the blinds, the Wal-Mart, the Nordstrom, the flower, the high end restaurant, the derelict neighborhood, the oak and the weed, you idiot.

Separate for a second zazen from washing the dishes, working the garden, taking out the trash, going to work, making love, diapering the baby, dealing with the teenager, and all the endless kaplas would not suffice for you to make your way back to reuniting them.

16 May 2011

Spiritual Athletes

Asceticism gets a bad rap because it is all too often confused with mortification. 

"Asceticism" comes comes from ἄσκησις, áskēsis, which means exercise or training.  It means the renunciation of certain pleasures and activities in favor of hard training, physical and mental and emotional endurance, and, perhaps, a few (figurative or literal) pulls, sprains and breaks along the way.

"Mortification" has mors, death, at its root.  It aims at killing off the body in order to liberate the soul.  It assumes a body/soul dualism, seeing the one as evil and the other as good.  Sinful flesh is simply punished.

Both the ascetic and the mortifier are saying a yes and a no, but they are different kinds of yes's and different kinds of no's.

Both the ascetic's and the mortifier's bodies may become tried and sore and broken along the way, but the one accepts the tiredness and soreness and brokenness as part of the program, while the other just aims at them directly, mistaking side effects for the cure.

One phrase I've seen used for the ascetic in both Buddhist and Christian traditions is "spiritual athlete."  This doesn't mean a baseball player who goes to Bible study or a basketball coach who does some zazen.  It means one who, intent on overcoming one's ego-attachments, practices hard, accepts the demands along the way and is willing to make the difficult choices.  For the spiritual athlete, practice is neither an imposition nor a drudgery; rather, practice is skillfully applied, vigorously undertaken, joyfully accepted and freely offered.

Seen from this perspective, it's clear that the Buddha rejected mortification, not asceticism.  The Path he set forth was one of training toward perfection rather than one of fast tracking toward annihilation.

Yesterday in teisho we heard about the battered behind Bankei got from all of his zazen.  We heard about Kaihōgyō practice on Mt. Hiei.  I find these to be great – and humbling – examples of spiritual athletes (though it doesn't help that the Kaihōgyō monks are called "Marathon Monks"!).  It would be a shame to lose their example by dismissing them as senseless forms of mortification.

14 May 2011

From Blech to Bliss

I am always glad to be done with an academic year.  By the time two semesters are over I am more than tired of hearing the sound of my own voice in 75 to 150 minute installments, I am exhausted from trying to make points that most people couldn't care less about, and I am at the end of my rope hoping to remedy undergraduate prose that would have landed me in D+ territory in 7th grade.

At the end of the academic year I find that I need to find my own bearings again, to live without citing texts and dropping names, to inhabit a world without books, without classrooms, without assignments.  I need to touch the earth, to move in the outdoors, to do some bodily labor.

That might explain why my out-and-back trips to get kids from college in DC last week and in central PA this week were completely relaxing.  That might explain why I keep finding more things to do in the garden.  That might explain why I'm very much looking forward to painting a couple of rooms here week after next and the front porch in a couple of months.  It's not that they aren't work.  It's that they are activities with a stake and built-in standards of success and failure.  They are activities that make a tangible difference in the world.  And best of all: they are activities that don't require much clap-trap at all!

08 May 2011

Flowers Fade

Tomorrow's rose isn't beautiful yet, and last week's rose, though once beautiful, no longer is.

Soon, it will not even be a rose.

The ingredients are all set out on the table.  It is not yet a good tasting soup.  In the refrigerator I find a container of the soup I made 2+ weeks ago.  It is no longer a good tasting soup.

Soon, it will not even be soup.

I had occasion recently to revisit the issue of teacher scandal in Zen, and I have begun to wonder if even sanctioned insight and teaching authority doesn't have a limited shelf life.  When causes and conditions are right, the teacher appears; when causes and conditions are no longer right, the teacher disappears, even if there's a document of transmission, a hossu and all the rest that somehow linger on. 

I don't know.

Every kind of take on "real" or "true" teaching authority as well as every suggestion for a way forward has hit my eardrums over the last year or so, from
"Humpty Dumpty was never whole" to
"Humpty Dumpty had a blind spot for wall edges" to
"We are all Humpty Dumpty" to
"Give Humpty Dumpty time, and the cracks will mend" to
"Humpty Dumpty can fry on the pavement" to
"Who put Humpty Dumpty on the wall to begin with?" to
"Who's to say Humpty Dumpty is even broken?" to
"Humpty Dumpty was such a good egg, he can't be broken!"
None of these are satisfactory, yet none of these are completely off the mark, either.

This issue gives me a headache in the worst possible way.  It pushes just about all of my pushable buttons. 

Homage to all Buddhas in the ten directions for giving me the boon of such wonderful teaching!

06 May 2011

Darlin', You Can't Love Two

I'm given to understand that in the Pāli canon one finds the recurrent pairing of saddhā and nekkhamma, or faith and renunciation.  Going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, so the tradition goes, means at the same time not going for refuge to something else. A variation on this pairing is present in the Christian tradition as well, particularly in the rite of baptism, where the candidate both professes faith in the triune God and at the same time rejects satan, his works, and all of his empty promises. 

Leaving aside things like jukai ceremonies and baptisms, this pairing pervades every moment of everyday life, and this is where the rubber hits the road.  Which shall it be, clear Mind or habit energy?  If I take refuge in the one, I am saying no thanks to the other.  Which shall it be, the Dharma or my ego projections?  If I take refuge in the one, I am saying no thanks to the other.  Which shall it be, the corporate wisdom and compassion of the Sangha or the demands of the peer group, socio-economic stratum, civil society or nation?  If I take refuge in the one, I am saying no thanks to the other.

There's a tendency in the Mahāyāna to say that we don't need renunciation, since, in the vast realm of the absolute, clear Mind is habit energy, the Dharma and my ego projections are one, and the Sangha includes every individual and group without restriction.

As soon as I live completely in the vast realm of the absolute, I'll be happy to buy the argument.

It is true that renunciation is not one of the pāramitās in the Mahāyāna, but traditionally it does gets subsumed under kṣānti, or patient forbearance.  It doesn't matter which list it is or isn't on.  The point is that relying more and more in one's life on the Three Treasures will necessarily mean relying less and less on the comfort of the ego support structures one has become accustomed to.  And, like any shedding of the ego support structure, it's likely going to hurt, at least at first (hence the connection to forbearance).  

I don't know about others.  I just have a sense deep down that my further Yes's to the Dharma are going to require more No's out of me than I've been able to say just yet.   Having my cake and eating it too is not at all what practice is teaching me.

04 May 2011

Appalachian Spring

Driving through Pennsylvania today in a spring shower I was utterly captivated by the landscape around me: mist moving throughout the hills green with leafing trees punctuated by the occasional redbud or wild cherry or dogwood in bloom. 

I know life can be rough for folks in these parts, but I have to believe the word, "spring," was invented with a day such as this in mind.

01 May 2011

Humble Change

Yesterday I found myself on the receiving end of food offerings and dāna intended for monks and nuns.  I was humbled to be in the company of these sons and daughters of the Buddha.

I had no right to be counted among them.

For them, that lunch was the last meal of the day, and they ate what was set before them.  For me, it was a delicious diversion between breakfast and dinner, and I was free to have whatever breakfast and dinner I felt like.

For them, their robes are their only garb.  They can go nowhere without being instantly recognized for what they are.  For me, my robes go on when I need them on, and they come off when I want them off.  I can pass as a layman most hours of most days.

For them, the dāna they receive is all they get.  They can't put in more hours, work a second job or take out a loan to make their lives easier.  For me, the dāna I receive is icing on the cake.  I have a steady income and make enough to get by.  I could take on more work if I wanted to, and I can count on some measure of economic control.

I could go on…

There are days when I wish the Japanese hadn't come up with this hybridized, somewhat bastardized, decidedly laicized form of home-leaving-that-really-isn't.  Then again, it's all I can do right now.  That doesn't mean, though, that I can't take it further in the direction of something closer to the practice of the monks and nuns with whom I ate.  Nothing is holding me back on that.

Yesterday ended with a dance recital/show at my daughter's high school.  One of the dance pieces was set to John Legend's "If You're Out There."  I'd never heard it before, and by a minute into the song I was misty eyed, and at the end I was fully in tears.  It built off of Gandhi's line, "Be the change you want to see."

Something happened yesterday.  I don't know what, exactly, but somehow, in however small a way, I now find my path just a little clearer, my burden just a little lighter, my movement just a bit more free.